By Michael Shank

Mayor Eric Adams has been a huge proponent of plant-based diets as a way to both boost health and reduce the city’s carbon emissions.

Food is finally front and center when it comes to climate action and policy. Or at least it’s on the plate. For the first time, food systems and their climate impacts were a major focus of the UN climate talks in Dubai last month, and climate-friendly food is increasingly being featured in mainstream media outlets. This is a sea change from just a few years ago. And while there’s some attention at the national level, with global governments developing food policies and pacts, many of the most exciting advancements are happening at the city level.

Local governments have long been pushing for more people- and climate-friendly food systems. A decade ago, the Milan Food Pact was launched to create an “international protocol aimed at tackling food-related issues at the urban level.” Five years ago, the Cool Food Pledge was launched in San Francisco to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food service by 25% by 2030. A year after that, the Good Food Cities Declaration was launched, and then at the UN climate talks in Scotland, local governments announced the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration to “tackle the climate emergency through integrated food policies” and “call on national governments to act.” The Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, where I’m the director of engagement, was involved in the founding of many of these efforts.

On a more granular level, cities are taking actionable steps to follow through with these commitments. From San Francisco’s early leadership on zero food waste, which diverted food from landfills and helped build an industry out of compost, or the packaging of food within the circular economy space, which Vancouver, Canada, is doing with its Circular Food Innovation Lab and the Greater London Authority is doing with its ReLondon circular food pioneer projects.

Cities, in other words, have been at the forefront of climate-friendly food leadership. Where we go now, however, is the question. Pacts, pledges, and declarations are essential starting points, but the work ahead won’t be easy and requires even more creative and ambitious work.

One city in particular that’s garnering attention for its food leadership is New York City. Mayor Eric Adams, who follows a plant-based diet himself, has been actively promoting and rolling out plant-based options as the default throughout city-owned hospitals. Public schools, furthermore, have default plant-based meals on Plant-Powered Fridays, and older adult centers, homeless shelters, and jails have plant-based meals at least once a week for lunch and dinner. All of this is part of NYC’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions from the food the city serves.

What’s notable here, however, is how the city and its mayor are taking this work on the road, campaigning on it publicly, and leveraging the city’s leadership role to encourage other institutions throughout New York to do the same.

For example, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Food Policy recently launched a Plant-Powered Carbon Challenge to encourage the city’s sport venues, healthcare systems, food service providers, and companies with employee dining to scale up their plant-based offerings and draw down their food-related carbon emissions. (The city is also rolling out plant-based culinary training and certification with its Department of Correction, which CNCA is funding.) Last month, Columbia University accepted the city’s challenge to prioritize a plant-powered procurement strategy for its dining operations and reduce its emissions 25% by 2030. And more NYC-based businesses plan to join soon.

All of this is good for the planet, of course. As Mayor Adams noted in the city’s recent release of a video promoting the challenge, if every New Yorker would swap out a daily quarter-pound burger with plant-based protein instead, it’d be like planting 350 million trees or taking approximately five million cars off the road per year. That’s a lot of carbon emissions avoided. (Average American meat consumption, by weight, is the equivalent of 2.4 burgers per day.)

Equally important, and perhaps most immediately for New Yorkers, the health benefits of plant-based diets include a decreased risk of cancer, reduced risk of death from heart disease, and reduced medications to treat a variety of chronic conditions. These are strong motivations to prioritize plant-based proteins. And thankfully the plant-based options in food service industries are a lot tastier and more varied these days. We’ve come a long way in that regard; what’s healthy can also be what’s delicious.

We know that food is personal and asking people to dramatically change their eating habits is very different than encouraging them to switch to solar panels, heat pumps, or electric vehicles. It will also require a variety of tactics to not only show people that plant-based food is better for their health, but that it can be prepared and served in countless surprising and delicious ways. New York City and its mayor have taken this challenge seriously and are leading by example. It’s time for other cities to join that challenge.